Referendum bites the dust

September 22, 1995

Seven French government ministers attended the launch of a commission on education which appears set to bury President Chirac's pre-election promise of a referendum on education.

In a lengthy introductory address, prime minister Alain Juppe avoided the word "referendum" completely. He explained that the commission would draw up a white paper which could lead to a texte referendaire that would "solemnise" a consensus project on educational reform. This would be a far cry from the electoral promise.

Some members of the 24-member commission have made clear they would in any case oppose a referendum. Jacques Julliard of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales, said: "The aim of a referendum is to settle a precise question and a referendum on such a complex and diverse subject would be more of a plebiscite.

"To say, as Jacques Chirac did during his campaign, that there will be a referendum on education, probably without knowing precisely what he meant at that moment - that is what I criticise and find unacceptable."

Mr Chirac has specified that the referendum would put a question on the reform of the two-year initial university diploma courses.

With the referendum sidelined, the commission intends to carry out a year of intensive work on major issues facing the education system.

The commission is dominated by academics, researchers, and scientists, with a minority of representatives of industry. Although a number of school issues have been identified, higher education matters could well take precedence.

Roger Faroux, a former academic and former minister of industry, has thrown himself into the task and made it clear that membership of the commission will be a time-consuming task. Some prominent academics initially approached to join the commission are believed to have turned the request down because of the ambitious schedule.

"I think we must travel out of Paris and go to places where things are happening, where the new problems are emerging," Mr Faroux said. He wants to ensure a public airing of the issues through televised hearings.

"We all have in mind the problem of the first-level university diploma courses," Mr Julliard explained. "Things cannot go on the way they are. This is the most urgent matter. Our lycee-leavers are better educated than their United States counterparts and two years later end up worse educated than them."

This problem was singled out as a priority by Mr Juppe, who stressed that two out of three students do not get as far as a bachelor degree and many do not even get to the initial diploma. However well-known the problems, as Mr Juppe put it, solutions have been impossible to find so far. Suggestions in the past that access should be restricted to university diploma courses have led to mass student demonstrations.

Last year there was strong opposition to a suggestion in a report to the higher education ministry that diploma courses should be moved to "higher education courses" with university courses starting in the third, bachelor degree year.

The government will have to apply inevitably sensitive reforms in a pre-election period.

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